The Complete Guide to Editing and Proofreading for Students

In my teaching over the past 15 years, I’ve seen thousands of poorly written student assignments. Poorly written assignments outnumber the good ones, and they force me to spend lots of time deciphering students’ meaning and writing extensive comments on errors. Most students need to spend more time in the revision stage fixing their grammar and style.

On the other hand, the well-written assignments I read are like the proverbial breath of fresh air. I need to spend less time reading and grading well-written assignments, and that’s a relief when I’ve got another 50 papers in the pile to mark. Students who edit and proofread their work well communicate better and make my life easier, and of course, that leads to better grades for them.

This The Complete Guide to Editing and Proofreading for Students provides: (1) a summary of useful online resources; and (2) tips from my professional teaching experience to help students polish their writing and produce documents that will earn those elusive A-level grades.

You should spend some time in the revision process thinking about some or all of these tools and tips to get your writing into top shape.

Software and Web Tools

The software and web tools listed here for editing and proofreading are mostly free, although some require a modest fee. Investing in good software will pay off down the road, so don’t just look for free stuff.

Use a Grammar/Style Plug-in like Grammarly

The number of web-based grammar and style checkers is growing, and Grammarly is perhaps the best one. Install the Grammarly browser plug-in (the basic account is free) and your online writing will be checked for 100 grammar points, spelling, and punctuation. While the basic account doesn’t have Microsoft Word integration, you can upload files and get a simple check right on the website. Pay for an upgraded account to get more types of checks and Word integration.

Google Docs and Plug-In Helpers

Many students don’t have the money to buy Microsoft Word – if you’re the same, the Google Docs free word processor can get the job done (but you must have a live Internet connection to use it). Its spellchecking feature is fairly good, although not as comprehensive as Word’s, and its grammar check doesn’t find as many errors. You can, however, add plug-ins to help with certain issues. For example, some students have a tendency to use different spellings of words in long documents – this consistency problem can be solved with the Consistency Checker plug-in available in the Google store.

Run Spelling and Grammar Check

Everyone knows that Microsoft Word has a spelling and grammar check option. But why do so few students use it? I suspect it’s because they either forget about it in the mad rush to finish, or they find it takes too long to run through all the suggestions. Sometimes Word flags correct words as incorrect, so the ‘false positives’ also make the process tedious. But it’s still vital to run the feature at the end and catch those remaining errors. Many times I see typos in student writing like “theri” instead of “their,” which could be easily corrected by running this feature.

Avoiding Plagiarism the Easy Way

Do you worry about plagiarizing someone else’s words? It’s a big problem in schools, and while some students plagiarize as a dangerous strategy to save time, for many students it’s inadvertent. First, always put someone’s ideas in your own words (summarize a large chunk of the person’s ideas rather than paraphrasing). Still, sometimes your writing can still plagiarize. It’s an art to summarize well.

These days many schools put assignments through the Turnitin.com software and it spits out a plagiarism percentage that will warn your teacher. Now, Turnitin doesn’t offer a service for students to confirm their work before submission; however, some free websites do offer such tools such as PlagScan, Plagiarisma and Duplichecker. Upload your text and see what comes up before you submit the work to your teacher.

Check the Readability Stats of Your Document

Microsoft Word includes an option in Spelling and Grammar check that shows Readability Statistics after you finish running it (you may have to turn this on in the Options section of the tool). These stats show how easy the document is for readers to comprehend. Try to keep your “sentences per paragraph” between 3 and 5 and your “words per sentence” below 15. This will make your sentences easier to understand. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level number should be low — this may sound counterintuitive, but don’t try to make your writing score higher on this grade level. The lower the grade level, the clearer the writing.

All-in-one Software

A highly rated, comprehensive piece of software that integrates with Microsoft Word is Whitesmoke. It checks grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style. On style issues, it’ll determine, for example, if your writing is monotonous or if you’re confusing the tenses of your verbs (this is great for English as a Second Language students still learning the verb tenses). The premium version includes a plagiarism checker, so you’ll know if you’re writing completely in your own words. The software isn’t free, but there’s a cheap monthly subscription option for $14.95 — to save money, sign up near the end of the school term when all your papers are due, use the software, and then cancel when you’re finished.

Weeding the Garden

I always tell my students that editing is about “weeding the garden.” You’re looking out for unnecessary words that are crowding out the goodness in your sentences. For many students, however, “seeing” wordiness is a challenge. Now we have software for the purpose: WordRake. The software, which the company calls a “personal editor,” will rake through your writing and identify opportunities to remove words and tighten up your phrasing for clarity’s sake. Wordrake is free on a 7-day trial.

Hemingway to the Rescue

The English literature students reading this know that Ernest Hemingway wrote in a clear, simple style (almost too simple for some critics!). Now a company has bottled up the Hemingway style into a piece of software called Hemingway Editor 3 for Mac and PC. Only $19.99, the software will highlight heavy, difficult-to-understand phrases so you know exactly what needs editing. It also highlights another scourge of bad writing: passive voice. Since many students can’t see their writing objectively, this software can point you in the direction of those writing speedbumps.

Find Structure with Scrivener

I’m a big fan of the non-linear Word Processor Scrivener for ensuring my academic documents – particularly long ones – have structure. Structure means you have an overall point that runs through all the paragraphs and that each paragraph talks about something different (no duplication). In large essays and papers, you can sometimes write about the same thing in different spots. Or you can forget your overall point that should connect everything.

Scrivener has a fully functional 30-day trial option (that’s 30 separate days of use), but even the paid version is only $45 for Mac and PC. One of its many great features is that it shows the name of each chunk of writing (a paragraph or section) listed down the left side of the screen. That way at any moment, you can see the outline of the whole document in one view. You can also move these chunks around to create a better flow of ideas. This beats scrolling through a long Word file trying to find that elusive paragraph you remember writing.

An Open-Source Proofreader

Another good – and open-source – option for proofreading is a plug-in called LanguageTool. Just add it to your browser, and you can check documents and pages that come up. What’s nice about LanguageTool (beyond being free) is that it checks text in multiple language, not just English. If you’re writing a paper for a non-English class, this is a good proofreading option.

Develop Your Vocabulary

Let’s play some games, shall we? A few years ago I felt like my writing was stale. I was using the same words over and over again. One solution for alternatives is to read a thesaurus (Microsoft Word has one built it). But a better way to develop your vocabulary is to play the game Word Bubbles Rising on the brain games website Lumosity. This one game has helped me spark creativity in word choice, and it may help you too during the editing process.

Avoid Proofreading Citations

The worst part of writing papers is doing the citations. It’s painstaking work to follow a style guide like APA or MLA. The last thing you want to do after spending time writing and editing is to see if APA style requires italicizing journal names or capitalizing all words in book titles. The best free bibliographic software to eliminate this work is Zotero. Just enter the information about your sources into the Zotero database (it will even grab data from your school library’s catalogue), and then insert the sources within your Microsoft Word file using a plug-in. Zotero will create your bibliography, and you can change between styles. It couldn’t get any easier to get perfect bibliographic style without the long, tedious work.

Sometimes You Need More than Editing/Proofreading

It’s all well and good to use software or hire an editor to improve your writing. But sometimes you need more than that: a tutor. Schools usually offer some free writing instruction at their writing centers. Use these resources to get a second opinion on papers before you submit them. If you can’t make it to the school writing center, or your school just doesn’t have the service, there are paid online tutoring services like Chegg Tutors, Skooli, and TutorVista. With these tutors, you can work on essential skills so that you don’t have to edit and proofread quite so much – the writing comes out solid even in the draft stage.

AutoCorrect is Your Friend

Many errors in your documents can simply be automatically corrected as you type by using Microsoft Word’s AutoCorrect feature. Turn it on and watch those errors disappear instantly. Just make sure the software chooses the right alternatives – sometimes it can suggest the wrong word.

Get Help from the Grammar Girl

If you need help on grammar, turn to the Grammar Girl. Mignon Fogarty runs one of the most popular sites for grammar lessons, written in simple language. For example, I always forget when to use “who” and when to use “whom” – if you’re in the same boat, turn to Grammar Girl for a simple answer.

Take a Writing/Editing Online Course for Punctuation (and Other Issues)

Another way to get the errors out is to take an online writing/editing course. These courses, hosted on Udemy.com and Skillshare.com, are usually fairly cheap ($10 to $50) and have a wealth of lessons. You can watch the videos on your laptop or phone at your leisure.

One of the most popular online courses is about punctuation: Punctuation Mastery by Shani Raja. Punctuation problems are a huge issue in students’ writing these days, as commas and semi-colons are tossed around indiscriminately. If you feel unsure about when to use punctuation (or other grammar problems), all you need is an hour or two with these courses to solve the issue.

proofreading tips for students

Tips and Techniques

In this section, I examine key tips and techniques to solve issues that I see coming up so often in my students’ writing.

Create an Editing Group with Your Classmates

Students tend to think they have to do everything alone. I think the warnings about plagiarism scare students off collaborative work. But when I was an undergraduate, I worked at a student newspaper and we used to swap our papers with our co-worker students. This would get more eyeballs on my work and help catch those errors I just couldn’t see because I had lost objectivity.

It’s Always a Problem

In the editing stage, most students still miss the contraction problem of ‘it is.’ Let’s get it straight now, once and for all. The word ‘its’ is possessive, showing ownership between something called the pronoun ‘it’ and another thing. This is not the same as the contraction ‘it’s’, which just means ‘it is.’ For example, one could write “John likes its red paint.” It would be incorrect, however, to write “John likes it’s red paint,” which, when the contraction is expanded, means the same as “John likes it is red paint.” Expanding the contraction, it obviously makes no sense. I think some students get confused because in other instances possession requires an apostrophe, such as in “John’s car is red.”

Their/there/they’re

This may sound like elemental spelling – the stuff of Grade 3 – but in my experience student papers still confuse these words. In the editing stage, run through your papers looking for these words and make sure you’ve used them correctly. Their is possessive, they’re is a contraction of they are, and there is an adverb modifying a verb (“They went there.”). Awareness of these distinctions shows your teacher that you have an eye for detail.

Read Your Writing Out Loud

The last thing to do before submission is to read your writing out loud. By the time you get to this stage, you’re no longer objective. Your eyes don’t see the errors because you’ve read those sentences over many times. You know what you meant. By speaking your words, you’ll catch awkward spots and also missing words your eyes don’t see.

Ensure Your Paragraphs are Coherent

A big problem in student writing these days – and maybe it’s a problem of the copy-and-paste functionality of word processors – is paragraphs that are random collections of sentences. Each paragraph should have its own thesis or argument, and each sentence should provide evidence for that thesis or argument. But many students tend to drop in sentences that have no connection to each other, creating a mess of random thoughts. While editing, go back to each paragraph and think “what is the key point here?” and “are all of my sentences defending that key point?” If they aren’t, they must be removed.

Stop the All-Nighters

I know, I know – you’ve got two jobs and five courses and have no time to write let alone edit and proofread your papers. However, the all-nighter style of writing is not conducive to producing error-free documents. It may be okay for churning out a few thousand words, but you need at least a good night’s sleep and a fresh brain to see errors of grammar and style. Plan your writing and editing time to ensure you’ve got at least one day to reconsider what you’ve written and look for errors.

Use Paper

We’ve become so attached to our digital devices that we sometimes overlook old-school options, like paper. Try writing a paragraph down on paper and you’ll find yourself thinking more carefully about the words you choose and the spelling, grammar, and style. Similarly, when you proofread your work, print it out and read it on paper – studies show we don’t catch as many errors when we read sentences on screens (it has something to do with the backlighting and low resolution messing up our perception). Errors will jump out at you on paper.  

Check Your Sources

In the editing stage, don’t just look at the words. Also examine your source content and make sure you are properly paraphrasing or summarizing another person’s ideas. One of the big problems I see in student papers is misrepresentation of theorists. Sometimes students will even cite the wrong author. A quick check back to the original source will confirm it.

Watch out for the Pinball

When you’re looking over your paper, do you see a lot of quotation marks on the page? You may have a pinball paper. A pinball paper jumps back and forth between big, fat quotations, with a tiny bit of filler between the quotes (that filler is your own words). When writing an academic paper, you’re not just a moderator of a debate between big minds. You are an authority finding your own position, cutting through other people’s opinions and ideas. Cut back on other people’s words and get more of yours in.

Can’t Meet the Word Count?

Many of my students argue that if they edit for wordiness, they won’t meet the assignment word count. Certainly not meeting the word count is a problem – a word count exists to ensure adequate development of ideas, so you have to use it up. But how do you bring back the word count after words have been cut? Add more detail such as more ideas and facts.

Follow the Formatting Rules

Check with your instructor about formatting rules for your assignment. Nothing screams lack of attention to detail more than failure to adhere to the formatting rules (title pages, double or single spacing, citation styles, border size, and so on). It’s easy for teachers to deduct marks on these obvious things. Similarly, make sure you answered all the questions your teacher wants answered, including those about the argument or thesis, the scope, and the number of citations required.

Dr. Duncan Koerber has taught writing and communications courses for the past 11 years at 6 Canadian universities to thousands of students. Oxford University Press recently published his writing textbook, Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (2015). Take his foundational writing course with unique exercises and assignments on Udemy.com: 7 Lessons for Becoming a Standout Writer at Work or School.

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